#844: Brain Washed by David Clayton-Thomas & The Bossmen
Peak Month: August 1966
9 weeks on Vancouver’s CKLG chart
Peak Position #8
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ did not chart
1 week ~ Wax To Watch on CKLG June 19, 1966
YouTube.com: “Brain Washed”
“Brain Washed” lyrics
David Henry Thomsett was born in 1941 Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, UK. His dad, Fred, was a Canadian soldier who served in World War II. His mom, Freda, played piano at a hospital in London to cheer up ill and wounded soldiers. His parents met in London at the hospital where his mom was playing the piano. After the war ended the family moved to Willowdale, Ontario, in suburban Toronto. As a child, Clayton-Thomas writes in his autobiography about his relationship with his father and describes him as “A big rough man, six feet tall, 200 pounds, with a vicious temper hardened by the horrors of war, he was the complete opposite of my gentle grandfather with his funny songs and his puppet shows, and he terrified me. This enraged Fred…. The army had taught Fred that discipline was the answer to everything. He’d toughen the youngster up. And the beatings began.” And so David Henry Thomsett began to run away from home at an early age. At the age of fifteen David left home after his father stormed into the home of a girl he was dating while he was having dinner and his father pulled him out into their front yard and beat David to a pulp. David left home and never returned. He was now a street kid living through a Toronto winter. After a series of arrests for vagrancy and probation violations he was sent to the Guelph Reformatry when he was sixteen.
At the reformatory David worked at a rock quarry breaking big rocks into little ones. He also signed up for the prison boxing squad. He later was sent to the Burwash Prison Industrial Farm, an agricultural setting established in the 1910s to rehabilitate prison inmates, and next house Japanese-Canadians during World War II. While in jail a battered, old mail-order guitar was left to him by an outgoing inmate. It was then Clayton-Thomas discovered a talent for music that allowed him to believe in a different kind of life.
At the age of 18 he made his debut on stage in 1963 as Sonny Thomas at the Bluenote Club in Toronto. Ronnie Hawkins, a Canadian rockabilly artist who had modest success with hits in the late 50s (“Mary Lou”) took “Sonny Thomas” under his wing. With Hawkins encouragement Thomas grew in skill and confidence. In 1964 he changed his name to David Clayton-Thomas and his band settled on the name The Shays. Their debut single was a tune by blues artist John Lee Hooker called “Boom Boom” peaked at #16 on CHUM in Toronto. The version that charted in Vancouver was by The Animals and it peaked on CFUN in January 1965 at #9. David Clayton-Thomas and The Shays first hit on the Vancouver charts was on CKLG. The song was called “Take Me Back” which peaked at #20.
In 1966 Clayton-Thomas formed a new band called The Bossmen. They had a new jazz-tinged pop sound and grew a loyal following in New York City’s Greenwich Village and Toronto’s Yorkville clubs. The band’s piano player, Tommy Collacott, had been the accompanist for Sarah Vaughan at Carnegie Hall when he was 14 years old. The Bossmen released an anti-Vietnam protest song called “Brain Washed” which first debuted on the CHUM-AM charts in Toronto on May 30, 1966.
“Brain Washed” begins with a character who wakes up sleeping in the city dog pound. Being a human being and only able to find accommodation in a dog pound is a jarring notion. For Clayton-Thomas, who had lived on the streets of Toronto for over a year, he might have been drawing from his own experience, or from those he met, when penning these lines. Being homeless in “the land of the brave and the home of the free” is a reference to America and the growing problem of homelessness in the mid-sixties. The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 was a pre-disposing factor in setting the stage for homelessness in the United States. Long term psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals into Single Room Occupancies and sent to community health centers for treatment and follow-up. It never quite worked out properly and this population largely was found living in the streets soon thereafter with no sustainable support system.
In the second verse the singer references the power of the media in shaping the thoughts and opinions of people consuming the news. Daily newspapers and radio shows shaped people with the steady drip-drip-drip of editorial opinion. However, it has been noted that in a 2017 article in the New York city based online magazine, The Balance, that “before the assassination of President Kennedy, most serious journalists wanted to work in radio or for a newspaper. TV was seen as an entertainment medium. The Kennedy assassination unfolded in a way that demonstrated the power of television. Radio couldn’t show the shooting and newspapers couldn’t capture the moment-by-moment drama. A film of the shooting could be replayed over and over to a horrified nation. Live reports from the hospital became grimmer by the minute. The shooting death of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was also shown on TV.” In any event, whether one was getting their news in 1966 from newspapers, radio or TV, the onslaught of columns and editorials seeking to shape the citizenry was mammoth. Among the news stories being run over and over again were those about the problem of overpopulation and the race to put a “man on the moon.”
In 1965 the Population Crisis Committee was founded in America by Lammot du Pont Copeland, Hugh Moore and others who sought to establish government regulations across the globe for population control. Moore had written a pamphlet in 1954 titled The Population Bomb. Four years after “Brain Washed” was released in Canada, Harvard University biologist George Wald warned in 1970, “… civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.” Wald’s prediction that civilization would end by the year 2000 didn’t come to pass.
In the third verse of “Brain Washed,” the singer conveys the news reports out of Vietnam of battlefield success in the American backed war against the Viet Cong. Though David Clayton-Thomas didn’t know what the Pentagon Papers would reveal when they were leaked to the NY Times and the Washington Post in 1971, he and others were becoming skeptical about American media reports about what was really happening in the Vietnam War. The US military found itself drawn progressively into politics, to the point that it had become as involved in “selling” the war to the American public. Journalists covering the Vietnam War stationed in Saigon referred to the military press briefings each day as the Five O’Clock Follies. Richard Pyle, Associated Press Saigon bureau chief during the war, described the briefings as, “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.” The briefings occurred in Saigon’s Rex Hotel, and journalists alternately cracked cynical jokes and shouted at officials, often complaining about a credibility gap between official reports and the truth. “Brain Washed” argues that most of the people consuming the news were on automatic pilot and not thinking critically because they were being brainwashed. In the final line in verse three the word before “damn” is expressed with a high pitched tone instead of a word. This leaves the listener to speculate what the actual censored word might be.
In the years that followed it was learned that President John F. Kennedy’s official policy regarding the conflict was to withdraw all US personnel from Vietnam by the end of 1965. Former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, said as much in his autobiography, In Retrospect. And historian, Major John Newman, explored the matter of President Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam in his book JFK and Vietnam. General Bruce Palmer, who in 1963 was a senior officer in the Pentagon, believed Kennedy would not have committed major U.S. forces to Vietnam “and that quite a different situation would have unfolded had he lived.” In a January 17, 2008, Letter to the Editor in the New York Review of Books, Francis Bator, the former Deputy National Security Advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, wrote, “there was a plan to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, beginning with the first thousand by December 1963, and almost all of the rest by the end of 1965…. President Kennedy had approved that plan. It was the actual policy of the United States on the day Kennedy died.” And while publicly perceived as a “hawk,” in 1966 Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was trying to persuade President Johnson to withdraw all US troops by the end of the year.
“Brain Washed” was a hit on CHUM 1050 AM in Toronto where it spent eleven weeks on the chart including three weeks in the top ten, peaking at #6. In Vancouver the song climbed to #8 and in Edmonton, Alberta, the song climbed to #2 on the CJCA charts. In America, the anti-Vietnam War lyrics in the song got it banned from the airwaves.
Next, Clayton-Thomas found himself performing at “basket houses” in Manhattan where new artists sang songs to their audience and then a basket was passed around to make donations to the performer. Concurrently, in 1967, a new band had formed in New York City called Blood, Sweat and Tears. By 1968 they were looking for a new lead singer and were considering the lead singer for the recently disbanded Box Tops, Alex Chilton, whose vocals were heard everywhere in the summer of 1967 on their #1 hit “The Letter.” Folk singer Judy Collins had seen Clayton-Thomas perform at one of the basket houses and was so impressed and moved by his performance that she told members of Blood, Sweat and Tears about him. At her insistence, guitarist Steve Katz and drummer Bobby Colomby went to see Clayton-Thomas in concert. They were so amazed that they asked David to front the band as lead singer.
Blood, Sweat and Tears next released a self-titled second album featuring Clayton-Thomas on lead vocals. His treatment of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die”, all shot to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. They peaked on Vancouver’s CKLG-AM sequentially at #2, #18 and #5. Each single won a Grammy Award
With its record sales successes Blood, Sweat and Tears headlined at major venues around the world including Royal Albert Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, the Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, and Caesar’s Palace. They also performed in 1969 at the Newport Jazz Festival and Woodstock. They were the first rock ‘n roll band to play behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet Eastern Block countries, with the historic United States Department of State-sponsored tour of Eastern Europe in May and June 1970. With Blood, Sweat and Tears Clayton-Thomas lived on the road traveling across Europe, Australia, Asia, South America, the US, and Canada. But by 1972 the touring was leading to exhaustion and Clayton-Thomas left the band.
At that time David Clayton-Thomas came across a song written by Gary Wright called “Sing A Song”. Wright had been the keyboardist for the All Things Must Pass album by George Harrison in 1970, including the #1 hit single “My Sweet Lord”. In the following years David Clayton-Thomas pursued both solo work, releasing several albums, as well as returning to Blood, Sweat and Tears to provide lead vocals on albums the band released in 1975, 1976, 1977, 1980 and 1991. His official website notes David Clayton-Thomas “continued to tour successfully under the BS&T name until 2004.” Clayton-Thomas lived in New York City for more than 30 years but returned in 2004 to Toronto. Since then he has started up a ten-piece band that backs him as lead vocalist. At this time of Writing in January, 2018, David Clayton-Thomas’ most recent concert date on his website was in September 2017 in Sherwood Park, Alberta.
Clayton-Thomas, David. Blood, Sweat and Tears. Penguin Books, Toronto, Ontario, 2010.
Glenn Halbrooks, Events That Changed How Media Outlets Cover News, The Balance, New York, NY, June 26, 2017.
McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1996.
Newman, John M. JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, And The Struggle For Power. South Charleston, South Carolina, Create Space, 2017.
David A. Rochefort, Origins of the “Third Psychiatric Revolution:” The Community Health Centers Act of 1963, J Health Polit Policy Law, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, February 1984, pp. 1-30.
Keith Sharp, Freed From a Legacy, Music Express, May 22, 2013.
Clyde Haberman, The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion, New York Times, New York, NY, May 31, 2015.
The Press: Farewell to the Follies, Time Magazine, February 12, 1973.
CKLG pop charts from June 19, 1966
For more song reviews visit the Countdown.